The Cost of Occupation

On Adva Center’s Report: The Cost of Occupation: The Burden of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (June 2008).

By Khalil Nakhleh

Prologue (1)

This report was produced by Adva Center in Tel Aviv and authored by a one-time colleague, and a critical social scientist, Shlomo Swirski.  The Adva Center (means “ripple”) was established in 1991 by activists from 3 social movements in Israel, namely, the movement for Equality for Mizrahi Jews, the Feminist Movement, and the Movement for Equal Rights for Arab Citizens.  “The heart of our work”, as stated in the Center’s website (, “is advocacy for policy changes that favor disadvantaged groups in Israel.” 

This is not the Center’s first report on the subject.  The Center published an earlier report (in 2004), titled The Price of Occupation, which was described to contain “an analysis of the costs of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the Israeli government and for rank-and-file Israelis”.

Both reports adopt, and are informed by, the official Israeli narrative, which certainly I don’t share, about Israel’s position regarding the Palestinians.  From this perspective, the emphasis in both reports is on the economic, social and political “cost” or “price” (primarily financial) for Israeli society incurred by the continuing physical and military occupation of the Palestinian areas, and people, occupied in 1967.  Inadvertently, and by implication only, there is reference to the “cost” for the Palestinians in these areas, since, after all, this does not fall within the remit of the Adva Center.  However, it is, and it ought to be, the heart of our concern.  This is the important point for us.  Hence, the leading question: what challenges does it pose for us?

This report ought to be looked at as juxtaposition to our current survival strategy under Israel’s prolonged oppressive control, since 1967, and extended to the last 60 years, where we—the indigenous Palestinian population—were subjected to a ruthless process of ethnic cleansing and displacement. Thus, this is not a review; it is a commentary directed to us, and urging ourselves to pose the right questions, with strategic implications that could place us on the right road, and challenge us to take certain concerted actions—if we are willing—that, cumulatively, will undermine the prolonged military and economic occupation of the areas occupied in 1967, and it would lead eventually to the dismantlement of all oppressive Israeli-Zionist structures that impose inequality and racist domination over the Palestinian minority, breeding a system of apartheid.

Implications for Us—the Palestinian People

To start with, I read this report through a lens of “reversals”, i.e. reversing what is costly to them to what is beneficial to us, starting with the implications of the title on us.  I am not concerned really about how can the cost of occupation on Israeli society and economy be reduced, or alleviated; but, in fact, how can we, the Palestinians, who are carrying the brunt of this prolonged military and economic occupation, and who are subjected to a racist apartheid system, maximize the cost to the occupier, to render the continued occupation and the maintenance of the apartheid system unbearable to the occupier.  From this angle, it is instructive, and imperative, for all of us to study and internalize these reports, not only because it is important to be aware of what the Israelis are saying about themselves, vis-à-vis us, but how to utilize this information to break this illegal and unjust siege and domination of our lands, our minds and our future.  Of course, this assumes that we, as a people, as a collective, are genuinely committed to liberate ourselves from this hegemony; and to eradicate this military and economic occupation, and not to accept superficial, fake and deceptive ameliorations of it, intended only to generate positive international public relations images.

I shall take major “cost” areas, as delineated in this report, as an entry point, and propose ways to reverse them, and make them more costly for the occupation army, and more liberating for us.

The Perceived Notion of Overall Gain and Loss

This notion has two dimensions: empirical and perceptional.  In certain respects, the Zionist apartheid system, and its enforcers and beneficiaries, are benefiting from the continued occupation and domination.  On the other hand, favoring colonial settlers, in terms of allocation of budgets, carries noticeable negative “ripple effects” on the poor Israelis, Arabs and Jews alike, as the report documents.

On the question of  “gain”, the Report states:

As for Israel, since it is the dominant side whose state institutions, army and economy are stronger, the general impression is that not only does Israel have nothing to lose from the situation but that it actually benefits from it. (2)

The Report elaborates further:

There are Israelis (3) for whom the occupation does not exact any personal cost but rather constitutes a definite benefit … [some Israelis] purchased homes at bargain prices in neighborhoods and settlements built on Palestinian lands; industrial entrepreneurs and workers in plants that export to the occupied territories without paying customs duties and without having to incur heavy transport costs; land-owners, garage owners, building contractors and others who employ Palestinian workers for low wages.(4)

As for the “loss”, empirically, the report argues (and documents) that:

The conflict with the Palestinians is like a millstone around the neck of Israel; it undermines economic growth, burdens the budget, limits social development, sullies its vision, hangs heavy on its conscience, harms its international standing, exhausts its army, divides it politically, and threatens the future of its existence as a Jewish-nation state. … In short, Israel is paying a heavy price for the continuation of the conflict and for the absence of a fair and agreed-upon partition. (5)

Although parts of the above general conclusion are well analyzed, and the causal relation with the continued occupation is well founded; in other parts, however, the causal relation with the continued occupation is not established.  Israel’s strategic commitment to be an active and effective player and broker in the US-directed globalization push is not analyzed in this context.  For example, resulting from this strategic decision, Israel emphasized its role as a regional military and economic power, and sought to anchor it, and fortify it, without permitting any viable competition or contest.  Consequently, it re-prioritized its budgets, since its military victory in 1967, favoring the hi-tech development of its “military-industrial-complex” at the cost of social benefits and equal distribution of wealth that targeted the marginalized categories of the Jewish population.  Neo-liberal policies of privatization led to the control of major financial and political resources by a few oligarchic families, to the clear disadvantage of the workers and the poor. (6) This, in my view, has no direct cause-effect relation with continued occupation.

The “defense” budget grew steadily since the 1973 war to constitute about “a third of the total state budget”. (7) Between 1989 and 2008, the Ministry of ‘Defense’ [read: ‘War’] received additional allocations to its budget totaling NIS 36.6 billion, a figure “larger than the total budgetary outlay for elementary, secondary and tertiary education in Israel in 2008”. (8) The “Brodet Commission” that was set up to examine defense expenditures, recommended (in May 2007) “increasing government outlays for defense by NIS 47 billion over the next ten years … thus the spending will grow by an average of NIS 4.6 billion per year”.  This is equivalent roughly to the annual budget allocated for higher education. (9) 

The report concludes on this point, “the prolonged conflict with the Palestinians, which lies at the heart of Israel’s other regional confrontations [!], forced the government of Israel to choose between guns and college grads.  It felt it had no choice but to choose guns.”(10)
This is not completely accurate, however, if we consider that Israel had made a strategic commitment to become an indisputable regional military power, and to take every conceivable measure to eliminate or undermine its potential regional competitors (e.g., Iraq, Iran, etc), and to achieve a favored “star position” in the Western globalization push to militarize and control the world.

The report indicates, in another place, that “in budgetary terms, the cost of holding the Palestinian territories was low, both because Israel did not invest in economic development in the territories and because opposition on the part of the Palestinians … did not require a large military force.” (11) Also, “with the waning of the intifada, military presence in the territories was reduced.” (12)

On the other hand, Palestinian resistance to Israeli domination “constituted a threat to Israel’s economic stability”.  Each Palestinian intifada “caused a contraction in economic activity: a decrease in tourism, contraction of investments, increase in unemployment, a reduction in the purchasing power of Israelis.” (13)

How do we Maximize the Cost of Continued Domination and Apartheid to those who are imposing it on us?

To start with, we have to revise our thinking—our mental set—regarding our approach to our future, which was embedded in us at least since 1974, and to reaffirm our basic premises that should guide and inform our strategic planning.

Setting aside the assumptions or premises of the report under discussion, I start by reiterating my personal views of what our premises for reclaiming our future ought to be:

· We should not accept any plan that aims to partition historical Palestine, regardless of who proposes it, and with or without a “Wall”.

· Our future vision emphasizes that we will work towards the establishment of one democratic society in historical Palestine, where we, the Palestinians, are willing to live with Israeli Jews as equals.  The Jewish Zionist state apparatus, and its apartheid structures, will be dismembered and replaced.

· The new democratic society in Palestine/Israel will be the country to which all Palestinian refugees may return, and are encouraged to do so.

· Our struggle towards this goal should be an integral part of the Arab popular struggle against foreign domination, and US- initiated and backed military, political and economic hegemony over Arab peoples and resources.

· The Palestinian “leadership structure” that dominated our struggle over the last forty years has become illegitimate.  It needs to be dismantled, restructured, and re-born as a popularly accountable leadership that is committed to carry future struggle.

Our so-called Palestinian “leadership” was duped by “minimalist Zionists”, the likes of Peres and Rabin, etc, and by the “good intentions” of  the leaders of the imperialist world, the likes of Clinton and Bush, etc, and believed in their “reformed” commitment to allow the Palestinians who were decimated by the war of 1967 and the subsequent occupation, to live in an independent micro-state.  The truth of the matter is, as it is very clear at this juncture in our struggle, is that we wasted generally about 40 years, and more specifically, the last 17 years, in anticipation that the perceived commitment of the likes of Peres and Rabin, Clinton and Bush get realized. 

By following the principle that “it’s never too late”, I suggest to re-examine what the “maximalist Zionists”, specifically Jabotinsky, planned for us, in order to inform our strategic thinking and planning.

“Zionism was conceived by Jabotinsky”, as concluded by Avi Shlaim in his recent book The Iron Wall, (14) “not as the return of the Jews to their spiritual homeland but as an offshoot or implant of Western civilization in the East”.  This meant that “Zionism was to be permanently allied with European colonialism against all the Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean.” (15)

In 1923, Jabotinsky published two seminal articles under the heading “The Iron Wall”.  Regarding the question of the status of the “Arabs of Palestine” in the foreseen “Jewish state” in the greater “Eretz Yisrael”, he wrote in the first article:

Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement.  This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent Palestine from becoming the Land of Israel. (16)

In his second article, he elaborated his views further:

A voluntary agreement [with the Arabs of Palestine] is unattainable … We must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives.  [Isn’t that what’s happening today?] Settlement can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down. (17)

Our first and paramount action is to start believing that the “iron wall” is penetrable, and our popular will can effect it.  Then I propose the following steps:

1. Persist in targeting the two specific “high cost areas” for the Israeli military, namely the Colonies and the Wall.  Military protection for both requires considerable resources.  Our action should encompass all forms of internationally sanctioned resistance, from harassing colonizing families and groups, through steady and regular people-affirming presence at their “door step”, using all means of non-violent resistance measures, and not excluding other effective means of struggle, as may be warranted.

2. The life of illegally constructed colonies on our land should be made “hell”.  We should not tolerate having a bullying thief sitting by force in our fields as a normal development.  He is a thief, and not a guest! Our cultural values and international law instruct us to expel him, and should unify us to do so.

3. We cannot make his life hell if we are willing to trade with him, or have joint activities for temporary economic gain.  As a part of our overall boycott of the apartheid Zionist state, we should commit ourselves to a strict boycott of all colonies, be they “mild Zionists” and “rabid Zionists”.  In the meantime, our energies should be directed inwardly to develop our own resources.

4. We need to change our language, and, thereby, our thinking, or vis-a-versa.  Colonies are not mere human “settlements”.  For example, Ramallah is a human settlement; Ein Yabrud, Silwad, Arura, etc, are naturally-developed human settlements.  But Ofra, Dolev, Shilo, Ma’aleh Adumim, etc, are not.  These are colonial settlements, erected by force on stolen Palestinian land, to cleanse it from its indigenous population in order to replace them by Jews.  All Israeli-initiated and erected Jewish colonies are illegal, whether resulted from direct and explicit government decision, or indirectly from the ideology of racist Zionism.  We should not fall into the trap of accepting the narrative of our enemies—Israel and the US—and start distinguishing between “illegal settlement outposts” and the rest!  This implies that what Israeli governments had approved is “legal”, and the rest are not!

5. Constructing and protecting the “Wall” is a heavy expenditure area for the occupation army.  The cost of the Wall, as estimated by the Brodet Commission, was put at NIS 13 billion. (18) We should view the Wall as an enemy construction project being erected illegally on our land, and against our will, and we should act accordingly.  We need to boycott any connection with it, first, and render the military’s task of protecting and maintaining it impossible.  We cannot work in it, benefit from its construction, participate in supplying it with raw materials, and resist it at the same time.  Our effort should focus on creating our own work opportunities for our workers.  On the other hand, our contractors and entrepreneurs, who see an opportunity for a quick buck, through normalization and exploitation, should be exposed publicly and exorcised from our midst.

6. The “Wall” is illegal and should be dismantled.  We have the international support based on the International Court of Justice ruling, four years ago.  Also, we have demonstrated our popular will of resistance in a number of communities directly affected by the Wall, namely Bil’in, Ni’lin, Jayyous, Al-Khader and Deir Lighsoon.  We should be alert that this manifestation of popular resistance should not become a routine “festive” event every Friday!  Our peoples’ non-violent resistance against the Wall should be expanded in qualitative and effective measures to utilize, among other things, the international legal legitimacy, as, for example, in the current case in Canadian courts against Canadian corporations involved in illegal construction activities, etc.  Further, this popular resistance should be replicated horizontally to all our villages and towns along the path of this illegal structure.  The Israeli occupation army should not be allowed to rest.


Currently, Israel as a Jewish-Zionist colonial settler state is our enemy.  This means we should treat it, and all its illegal activities directed towards our people, as such.  And we should advocate to mobilize the Arab peoples to the same.  Unfortunately, our official (and often) popular actions do not reflect a clear strategy to that effect; but they reflect more submissive, accommodating and normalizing positions.  It is our responsibility towards ourselves, and towards our future generations, to develop a clear and unambiguous strategy for our struggle, and to inculcate it systematically and steadily.  Israel being an enemy state, we should embark on all effective measures to isolate it internationally, and advocate to coalesce all young Arab generations to boycott Israel’s legitimizing academy, cultural events, and economy.  All of us should be actively involved in all measures that call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.  We are not doing enough to render the Jewish-Zionist state as a pariah among nations.

– Khalil Nakhleh is a Palestinian anthropologist, independent development and educational consultant and writer. His latest two books are: The Myth of Palestinian Development (2004), and Empowering Future Generations (2008). He is the editor of a forthcoming book, The Future of the Palestinian Minority in Israel. Dr. Nakhleh resides in Ramallah. He contributed this article to Contact him at:


(1) I want to thank my wife, Lois Nakhleh, and my friends, Adel Samarah, Sam Bahour, and Kathy and Bill Christison, whose comments on an earlier draft helped enhance and clarify this discussion.  An earlier version of this “Commentary” was published in, Volume VIII, Issue 1593.
(2) P.4, all “Bold” is added.
(3) Note that the term “Israelis” in the report refers to Jewish Israelis.
(4) P.5
(5) P.5
(6) Where in 2006 one in every five Israeli families was poor, p.28.
(7) P.16
(8) P.17
(9) P.27
(10) P.27
(11) P.17
(12) P.17
(13) P.10
(14) Shlaim, Avi, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.
(15) Quoted in Shlaim, p.12.
(16) Quoted in Shlaim, p.13.
(17) Quoted in Shlaim, p.13.
(18) P.18

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